Essam al-Zamil, an economist and blogger with a large social media following, has been detained since September 2017 on charges including “seeking to stir up sedition via Twitter.” Several news outlets reported that his arrest appears to be connected to a series of tweets in which he criticized the proposed initial public offering (IPO) for the Saudi Aramco oil company. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in October 2020.
Al-Zamil’s Twitter feed, which appears to have been removed as of late 2021, had around 844,000 followers and often includes critical analysis and coverage of economic issues, according to the U.K. newspaper The Independent. From 2007 to 2015, al-Zamil wrote about those issues and posted critical analysis of the Saudi leadership’s economic decisions on his blog. According to al-Zamil’s LinkedIn profile, he had a column for the Saudi newspaper Mecca from 2013 to 2017. In his column, the journalist commented on issues such as Saudi Arabia’s reliance on oil exports and the lack of employment options outside of the government for young Saudis.
Saudi authorities arrested al-Zamil, who is based in the city of Dammam, in early September 2017, according to the Qatari-funded, U.K.-based media outlet Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and an article in The Washington Post by Jamal Khashoggi, the columnist who was later murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
Al-Arabi al-Jadeed and The Independent reported that al-Zamil’s arrest may be connected to a series of tweets in which he criticized the proposed IPO for Saudi Aramco. Al-Zamil later deleted the tweets, The Independent reported. CPJ could not locate screenshots of the tweets, but The Independent described the posts as saying that the company would have to sell Saudi oil reserves to meet the project valuation, and that the economy would suffer if, after selling the reserves, Saudi Arabia was still unable to diversify. CPJ could not determine when the tweets were posted.
The Independent cited a U.K.-based Saudi scholar as saying, “The regime doesn’t mind people passing insults on Twitter, but Essam al-Zamel is an educated person who poses a threat because he can provide statistics and evidence that debunks Saudi propaganda.”
A November 2019 Human Rights Watch report on Saudi repression said that al-Zamil was detained for questioning projections for the IPO.
His arrest came amid a wider crackdown during which authorities detained journalists, academics, religious figures, and activists who were critical of the Saudi government, or who did not publicly state their support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or his policies.
The U.K.-based Saudi human rights organization Al-Qst reported in October 2018 that al-Zamil went on trial at a specialized criminal court, where he was charged with “seeking to undermine the social fabric of the nation,” “seeking to stir up sedition in the kingdom through his Twitter account,” and “attacking and discrediting policies and decisions of the state.” Charges also included belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood and communicating with Qatar.
A spokesperson for Al-Qst told CPJ in late 2019 that al-Zamil’s trial had not resumed since October 2018. The spokesperson added that al-Zamil is being held in Al-Hair Prison, in Riyadh.
The spokesperson said that authorities tortured al-Zamil to force him to confess under duress that his wealth came from Qatar. CPJ could not independently confirm the specific allegations of abuse, but Saudi researcher Abdullah Aloudh also wrote in a May 2020 Washington Post op-ed that al-Zamil had “suffered abuse.”
Al-Qst deputy director Josh Cooper told CPJ in October 2021 that al-Zamil was sentenced to 15 years in prison on October 6, 2020, but he did not know on which charges, or whether al-Zamil would appeal. PEN America reported that al-Zamil was sentenced on terrorism charges, which CPJ was unable to confirm.
As of late 2021, CPJ could not determine the status of al-Zamil’s health in prison.
In September 2021, CPJ emailed the Saudi Center for International Communication, a department in charge public relations housed in the media ministry, requesting comment on the health and status of al-Zamil and other imprisoned journalists, but did not receive a response.